Denis O’Brien tells High Court he is not ‘self-obsessed’

Businessman says he was ‘maliciously’ linked to ‘gang’ blamed for financial crisis

Businessman Denis O Brien pictured at the Four Courts on Thursday. Photograph: Collins Courts.

Businessman Denis O Brien pictured at the Four Courts on Thursday. Photograph: Collins Courts.

 

Businessman Denis O’Brien has told the High Court he is not “self-obsessed” in his belief that he was “lumped in” with 22 borrowers allegedly blamed in a series of newspaper articles for the State’s 2008 financial crisis.

“I’m second place to you in the vanity stakes,” he told Michael McDowell SC during cross-examination in his action alleging defamation in several articles published in the Sunday Business Post on March 15th, 2015.

He said he was “maliciously” put into a category of borrowers where he should not have been and defamed because the articles wrongly meant he was “a member of a select group responsible for the property bubble in Ireland”.

Mr O’Brien had made some property investments but was not a developer and disagreed it was not defamatory to describe someone as a developer in 2015. If you interacted with the public between 2008 and 2015 and said you were a developer and not a barrister, you “would get dog’s abuse”, Mr O’Brien said.

“I am not a property developer king and I didn’t bust the country.”

Mr O’Brien is suing Post Publications Ltd for substantial damages over the alleged defamation.

The focus of the articles, run over six pages, was what the newspaper referred to as a ‘secret’ report concerning exposure in 2008 of Ireland’s banks, compiled by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC).

Destroyed

The report was provided to the government in November 2008 and obtained in 2015 by the newspaper but was destroyed shortly after publication to protect the source.

The articles include a front page article headlined ‘22 men and €26 billion’ with a subheading stating ‘The secret report that convinced Cowen the banks weren’t bust’.

Mr O’Brien claims the various articles wrongly meant he was among 22 borrowers identified with the downfall of Ireland and the bankruptcy of its banking system and that this association injured his reputation.

The newspaper denies defamation, denies the words complained of mean what Mr O’Brien says and denies malicious publication. It has also pleaded “fair and reasonable publication on a matter of public interest”.

Mr McDowell remarked that Mr O’Brien had probably heard of the song, You’re so vain and the articles in question did not mean that he or others were being blamed for the 2008 financial crisis. Mr O’Brien said he did not know counsel was a “music buff” and Mr McDowell replied he was a “great fan of 98FM”.

Mr O’Brien reiterated his view the articles, including one headlined ‘The Gang of 22’, meant he was part of a group responsible for the 2008 crisis. He did not know how counsel could say otherwise or suggest he was “self-obsessed” or like the person referred to in the song.

Mr O’Brien denied his interpretation of “gang” as referring to people engaged in wrongdoing or criminality was “excessive”. Mr McDowell put to him “gang” is used widely to describe different groups of people, such as the “gang of 22” in the Fianna Fáil party who opposed Charlie Haughey.

The businessman said Mr McDowell, as a former minister for justice, knows gang is not “a loving term”.

‘Sensationalised’

He said he has never seen the PwC report but believed the newspaper had “sensationalised” it and the journalists involved had set out to do him damage.

Counsel suggested it was accurate to describe Mr O’Brien as among those under huge financial pressure in 2008 in the context of his having loans of some €750 million from Anglo Irish Bank. Mr O’Brien said he was not under huge financial pressure and, had he needed to, could “easily” have written a cheque to repay his Anglo loans.

He had paid all his loans off and, at the request of Bank of Ireland and AIB because of a flight of deposits by multinationals from Ireland, put €600 million on deposit in those banks, he said.

The taxpayer never had to shoulder any burden from his loans, he added.

Counsel said the newspaper would say the 22 people referred to in the articles, including Mr O’Brien, all featured in the PwC report which had put Mr O’Brien at number 10 in a list of 22 borrowers and that it was in the public interest to publish the report.

Mr O’Brien said PwC should have analysed the banks’ loan books in much greater detail and that it was possible the journalists got the PwC report wrong. He said he is a “good borrower” who strongly believes in the confidentiality of people’s banking affairs.

Letter

During other exchanges, Mr O’Brien said an experienced editor would have said he could not be described as he had been in the articles. Had the matter gone to the newspaper’s owner, he believed the owner would have said the same thing. He said he had received a letter from the owner of the Sunday Business Post.

Mr McDowell said it “may be news to you but in most newspapers the owners are not in control, the editor is” and put to him the “widespread convention” is owners do not seek to influence editorial content.

He said when one looks at some newspapers, such as the Daily Mail, he was sure their owners have influence and it could not be said “one cap fits all” in relation to editorial control.

In reply to counsel, he said he is a minority shareholder in INM and does not interfere with editorial policy there or with Newstalk.

The hearing continues before Mr Justice Bernard Barton and a jury.